Why bother with a definition of burnout?

This post was written by Megan on February 3, 2010
Posted Under: definition of burnout

Welcome to stress


The last Burnout Thing post saw me trying out 7 definitions of burnout.  

You would think one definition might be enough, but us 'burnees' have a habit of over doing it.


A thought about dictionaries

I have a theory.  Perhaps an official definition of burnout might seem a little cold and irrelevant to someone in the midst of the burnout experience.  Dictionaries are too heavy for a start. 

Admittedly, we do have the internet version of dictionaries.  The first one that ranked when I searched for 'burnout definition' was The Free Dictionary.  In Burnout Land – where resources can become scarce – 'free' anything becomes doubly appealing.

We came third, by the way, in the list of definitions under 'burnout'.  After "A failure in a device attributable to burning, excessive heat, or friction" (I'm assuming people aren't devices) and a second definition relating to aerospace.

The third definition of 'burnout' was (drum roll):

(a) Physical or emotional exhaustion, especially as a result of long-term stress or dissipation;

(b) One who is worn out physically or emotionally, as from long-term stress.


How do you feel about that?

Sounds reasonable, I suppose.  But it doesn't really refer to things like 'engulfed by invisible flames in a private hell' or 'held down by the haunches of an imaginary cow'.

Burnout is a personal and emotional – as well as physical – experience.  And it can be quite scary.

A healthy person citing the definition of burnout might seem a bit like a guy telling us why women should buy a particular kind of sanitary pad.

But we need them. Not guys selling sanitary pads. We need a decent burnout definition.  At least one.


The ‘d’ words and the ‘j’ word

We have definitions so we understand what another person is talking about when we use the word.  Having a diagnosis has a similar value in this way.   

However, diagnosis is a touchy subject because burnout is not acknowledged as a 'syndrome' by the medical fraternity.  When you miss out on the stamp of official medical acceptance the word ‘just’ tends to land in front of it.

“You’re just burned out,” your friend or doctor might say.  Meanwhile your family and/or boss are saying “Just get on with it, you lazy arse”. 

My recommendation?  Just forget the word “just”.


About hymn books

If burnout is such a personal experience, why try to define it?  As my Catholic friend might say, it is about singing from the same hymn book.  In other words, creating some agreed common ground from which other ideas can be exchanged (and you know how well religion does that). 

But I'm holding back on the hallelujahs for now.  I would like to find a definition – or 'a true meaning' – that really resonates.  

Want to come along?

Feel free to fluff your pillow and come with me on the journey to find some sense in all this.  Subscribe by email or RSS to My Burnout Thing if you like. 


Want to help?

If you feel the urge, post your definition of burnout below.  I would love to hear it.


This post was written by Megan Hills.  Megan is a writer and cartoonist who is prepared to talk about how scary burnout can be – so tiny buds of fearlessness can grow.  Find out more about Megan.

Reader Comments

Finally the understanding that each of us are individuals and have an individual aspect to any syndrome, disease or issue such as burnout.
The idea that someone can understand the complexity of me just because we both are struggling is regularly offensive. Why can't we admit when we don't understand. Then perhaps there is the potential that someone might listen without interrupting and get a real version of what I suffer.
Thanks for the dialogue

Written By Margaret on February 3rd, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

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